Best Foods for Wintering Birds

February 11, 2014

Conservation Education, Wildlife

by Kay Charter – During most years, birds that overwinter in our area are largely able to survive without our assistance, especially if the habitats in which they live are healthy. Birds like woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches have survived for many millennia without human help. But significant snowfall during the current winter without any thawing has resulted in snow cover on many of the seed bearing plants they depend on. At the same time, the long stretch of very cold temperatures means the birds must have abundant food available to them. So for this year, much more than most, you might want to provide supplemental food for your feathered visitors.

Photo by Kay Charter

Photo by Kay Charter

There are a host of selections from which to choose. A careful selection can make a positive difference. The most commonly chosen food for birds is black oil sunflower seed. It’s an excellent choice because the seeds have relatively thin shells, making them easy for birds to break into, and the seeds themselves have a higher fat content than other kinds of sunflower seeds, which makes them more nutritious than the others. These seeds are popular with virtually all feeder visitors from cardinals and chickadees to finches and titmice.

Nyger (also sometimes referred to as “thistle”) is popular with finches and redpolls. And fat-rich, high calorie peanuts appeal to jays, woodpeckers, nuthatches and others. Suet, also high in fat and calories, is another good choice. When selecting suet cakes, avoid those with corn, milo or other grains which are cheap fillers not eaten by most birds. The best is a product with beef fat, peanut butter and peanuts; ask your supplier to get it for you. Plain pork or beef fat is good, but should not be offered in warm weather as softened fat can get into feathers and cause infections in the follicles. White proso millet is a favorite of many ground feeders, including sparrows and juncos.

Some retailers insist that heated birdbaths are important for winter birds. Not true. The species visiting our feeders do need drinking water, but they are well adapted to our winters. Over the eons they have lived here – long before heated birdbaths were a germ of an idea – they have taken snow for their water needs. It simply isn’t true that birds eating snow will experience hypothermia. All they need to maintain their body temperatures is enough food.

Feeding birds at any time of year is a rewarding way to watch them. Remember to keep your feeders clean and the seeds fresh. If the birds don’t seem interested in your offerings, it is possible your seed is old. The solution is to dispose of the food and then clean your feeders thoroughly. Make sure they are well rinsed and thoroughly dry before putting them out again.

Two final thoughts about winter feeding: The first is that if birds that appear to be sick visit, take the feeders in, clean them thoroughly and do not put them back out until the afflicted individual or individuals either die or leave. And the second is that if a bird-eating hawk like a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned takes up residence in your yard, withhold food until the raptors leave. Yes, it is natural for these species to take songbirds. But it is not natural for songbirds to be lured to their deaths with food. Once the hawks leave, put the feeders back up and enjoy the activity outside your window again.

Kay Charter is executive director of Saving Birds Thru Habitat, an organization that teaches people how to help migrating birds whose populations are declining.  Please click here for a complete calendar of events. Kay also serves on the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance. 

About Northern Michigan Conservation Network

The mission of the Northern Michigan Conservation Network is to "connect conservation-minded hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts to those issues affecting Michigan's forests, waters, and wildlife."

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